And It Is Foretold That One Day Skiing Will Be Offered in New Jersey Alone
Big Snow American Dream to reopen on Sept. 1
Skiing will return. Skiing always returns.
Turns out the first ski area in the Northeast to reopen will not be Killington or Sunday River or some place in the remote wilds of Quebec but humble Big Snow, the indoor snowdome seated in the industrial charmlessness of the Jersey Turnpike corridor.
With Oregon’s Timberline shutting summer ski operations at the end of the ski day today, this will make Big Snow the only lift-served skiing currently available in North America, fulfilling what I’m sure is some strange prophesy etched in the mountain caves of our ancients. What this foretells for civilization as a whole is impossible to predict.
Longtime readers will know that I have a highly favorable opinion of this absurd-at-first-sight facility. I have even called it the most important ski area in America, and I stand by that: it is affordable, organized, well run, and seated in the highly diverse 20-million-plus New York City metropolitan area. A better machine to churn out the new, diverse skiers that the sport will need to thrive through this century could hardly be imagined.
I hosted Snow Operating’s VP of Marketing and Sales Hugh Reynolds on The Storm Skiing Podcast in March, and you can give it a listen if you want to understand the operating philosophy behind the place. He was an excellent guest. There’s also 20 minutes toward the end where we discuss Mountain Creek, my home mountain and one that has stitched back-to-back long ski seasons together in spite of having basically zero natural snow over that period. They know what they’re doing, and if anyone is going to make the Snow Dome work, it will be Snow Operating. My biggest concern is that they are attached to a dysfunctional, half-finished facility that seems more likely to go bankrupt than to thrive, especially as an indoor operation stumbling into our post-Covid retail-and-experience wasteland.
But, more immediately – will I go? This is the closest ski area to me and is 1980s affordable - a six-pack of two-hour tickets is $80. I’ve been generally avoiding the indoors, but the ski area has extensive safety protocols in place and can only operate at 25 percent capacity by New Jersey law, so it seems safe. We’ll see.
I’m very offended that everyone is so offended
Apparently, there are a huge number of Very Angry People who do not like to hear versions of reality or history different from what their first-grade teacher fed them about Pilgrims-and-Indians kumbaya Thanksgiving. I now know this because a couple hundred of them piled onto Squaw Valley’s Twitter announcement about its decision to change the resort’s name ahead of the 2021-22 ski season:
Yes, I was also taught in my all-white public elementary school in 1983 that “squaw” meant “Native American woman,” or “Indian” woman as we would have said at the time. I never thought to question this until the mountain announced it was reconsidering the name back in June. But it turns out that this word has a complex etymology and has long been considered derogatory by Native Americans. From the Sacramento Bee:
Darrel Cruz, the director for the Tribal Historic Preservation Office for the Washoe tribe of Nevada and California, has been involved with efforts to remove the word “squaw” from names before. In 2018, his committee helped to rename “Squaw Ridge” in Sierra Nevada to “Hungalelti Ridge,” a Washoe word which means “up there,” and can also mean “Southern Washoe.”
“The term ‘squaw’ was used, actually, throughout history in America to dehumanize the native people,” Cruz said. “By dehumanizing them and attaching a name to them like this, it allows them, in their minds, to be able to commit crimes against them without any guilt. Because they’re no longer a person, they’re a ‘squaw,’ they’re a name.”
And apparently “squaw” is no-go vernacular in the places where many Native Americans actually live:
When presented with new evidence that challenges my understanding of how words are perceived, I have to reconsider my old notions accordingly. The word “squaw” does not mean what I thought it meant, and so I have reconsidered the context in which it is deemed acceptable to use, and I agree that changing the resort’s name is the best and proper course. Tellingly, and as you can see above, it is the people who are the most concerned about the “professionally offended” who seem most offended by this name change.
For the record, though, I also find this kind of thing exceedingly tedious:
No, we do not all know everything. Sorry.
And then there’s this guy:
Really, you’re going to stop skiing one of the greatest mountains in the world because they changed the name? Cool Bro, have fun fighting the CORPORATE OVERLORDS over at Heavenly.
I love this guy too, who is the skiing equivalent of people who announce they are leaving Facebook out of disgust with the company’s privacy policies and will now be posting exclusively to Instagram, not realizing they are owned by the same company:
Also: I wonder what percentage of the U.S. population can correctly differentiate between “loose” and “lose?”
Alterra provided me with this statement regarding the name change of one of their crown jewel mountains:
“Alterra Mountain Company is committed to looking inward and making changes and decisions that truly make us a more inclusive company and valuable contributor to our industry and the community. It is with that intent that we are making a commitment to change the name of Squaw Valley Alpine Meadows. While there is a great deal of emotional attachment to the destination’s name, this is the right thing to do. We applaud destination president, Ron Cohen, and his team for their tenacity and deep respect for the culture of the mountain and community.”
They could have added: “The mountain will continue to be rad whether we call it ‘Olympic Valley’ or ‘Big Winter Very Great Terrific Ski Center presented by Honda.’ The terrain will continue to embarrass you and we will top 700 inches of snow in a good year. If you are unhappy with any of this, please try the totally unrelated Alpine Meadows ski area on the other side of the ridge.”
Vermont tries giving ski areas the thumbs-up instead of the middle finger
One of the realities of doing business in the Northeast in general is that it is highly regulated. Vermont, in particular, with its catalogue of Act 250 regulations, often seems to conspire against the long-term health of its ski areas with overly strict development rules.
So it’s encouraging to see the state legislature consider stimulus funding to help Vermont’s ski areas adapt to Covid-19 restrictions. This makes sense, as the state is likely to mandate capacity restrictions and other limitations on ski area operators. From The Reformer:
“When we look at winter coming forward, we know we have to put restrictions on ski areas that we haven't published yet,” [Agency of Commerce and Community Development Deputy Secretary Ted] Brady told the [Vermont House Committee on Commerce and Economic Development]. “We're anticipating having to tell them they're going to be capacity-restricted on their lodges and capacity-restricted or travel-restricted on their hotels.”
The industry brings 4 million skiers here a year, Brady said.
"They cannot survive unless we give them some resources to do things differently, for instance getting winter tents with heaters established for day lodge operations, to put in place new ticket and new line systems so you can maintain social distancing," Brady said.
Brady said the Vermont Ski Areas Association — also known as Ski Vermont — has been working with the state on a restart plan.
“They're very much acknowledging they're not going to operate the way they need to unless they make some significant changes,” Brady said. “Some ski areas might be able to do that without assistance. I'm not confident that most will not be able to.”
The alternative, Brady said, is risking the loss of winter visitors to the state, and market share losses for the state ski industry, a significant driver of employment and tax revenue. On top of that, there's concern that Vermont's regional skiing competition, in New York, New Hampshire and Maine, may have more relaxed travel policies in place, putting Vermont at a competitive disadvantage.
“If we don't help the ski areas we're going to lose market share,” Brady said. “And once we lose market share it's going to he hard to recapture.”
The article goes on to cite the example of Magic Mountain, the forward-thinking independent ski area that was the first in the region to articulate a modified operations plan for the upcoming ski season:
“[Magic President Geoff] Hatheway said Magic is developing an online reservation and ticket system so it can comply with capacity limits if needed. But between that expense, and preparing outdoor spaces where food and beverages can be served, the area is facing the likelihood of needing to spend money while reducing its daily customer capacity in order to meet health and safety guidelines.”
In other words, this season is going to get more expensive and result in less revenue. As though operating a ski area in the Northeast weren’t already difficult. The best possible outcome is a blitzkrieg natural snow year. Aid like this, however, could help enormously in securing the long-term stability of the state’s ski industry. How taxpayers will feel about that aid going to Vail Resorts and Alterra may be different than how they feel about it going to Magic, Mad River Glen, or Bolton Valley, however, so be ready for that backlash if this package goes through.
So yeah paying fifty grand to attend Zoom lectures sounds rad, but if you need me I’ll be over here bumping lifts in Utah
I hosted NSAA Director of Risk and Regulatory Affairs Dave Byrd on The Storm Skiing Podcast last month to discuss an impending labor shortage as a result of President Trump’s suspension of most temporary worker visa programs through the end of the year. His concern was that domestic workers, who have shown little interest in such jobs in the past, would fail to fill the positions left vacant if the ski industry couldn’t truck in planeloads of South American college kids who have become the lift-bumping, cafeteria-check-out-manning workhorses of American ski areas over the past couple decades.
That conversation took place before many U.S. colleges confirmed plans for a mostly online learning experience that would still cost roughly the price of a new Tahoe. College students, it seems, are saying, “F-that,” and electing instead for a gap year crushing pow in the mountains. As Jason Blevins elegantly puts it in The Colorado Sun:
In the meantime, resort operators are adjusting their hiring strategies to focus on locals and college students who may be sitting out a semester or studying from home. Ski areas are blanketing social media with specific ads targeting young adults in resort regions who may be sticking around for a semester or two.
And those college kids seem to be answering the call.
The return of college students to the resort area workforce harkens to a bygone era of ski bumming, when young adults spent winters or gap years working in resort communities. As the cost of housing grew alongside the increasing reliance on foreign workers, the ski bum culture that animated resort towns for decades began to fade.
Vail Resorts is finding more college students in resort communities responding to its call for workers at its dozens of North American ski areas.
“We have already ramped up winter season recruiting efforts and have been pleased with the results so far,” said Vail Resorts spokesman Ryan Huff. “We have found interest among students who have more flexibility now due to online learning or deferring college attendance for a year. And our employees from prior seasons are also showing enthusiasm to return.”
It’s one thing for me, an employee at a large corporation, to convert to an all-digital world. I am being paid to do so. And the work I do sitting on my patio table is identical to the work I would do sitting in my Times Square office. As anyone who has been to college or heard about college is aware, the work is but one element of the experience, and the greater parts of it cannot be duplicated outside of the real world in which it exclusively exists.
But maybe classes like this can get more kids to stay in school
Maine is a wild place and a tough one to run a ski area. They don’t get the snow that Vermont does and it’s far from everything and it’s dominated by Boyne’s twin giants of Sunday River and Sugarloaf, who have the financial and logistical resources to blow snow chin-high on a giraffe and thusly guarantee some of the longest seasons in the East.
Up against these hyperbolic shows of force, places like tiny Eaton Mountain need to get creative. Current owners David and Donna Beers rescued the once-abandoned ski area 10 years ago and ran it as a snow-tubing and handle-tow ski operation until spring 2019, when they wrote on their website that, “it is now necessary to take a year off in order to reposition the business so we can operate from a more solid footing and expand and improve upon what is already in place.”
They appear to have found that solution, in the form of a partnership with a local charter school, which will recruit students to develop a business plan for the mountain and secure grants for a new chairlift. From Mainebiz:
“Over the last five years I have been seeking the right partner to develop Eaton Mountain Ski Area,” Beers said. “I am extremely excited to be partnering with the Eaton Mountain Foundation and the Community Regional Charter School to operate and develop the ski area. I can't imagine a more ideal partner to have.”
The mountain has untapped potential, and operating a ski area is an unusual and difficult business, he said.
“This group has the energy, access to resources, community presence, ski industry contacts and relevant ski industry experience that will be necessary to bring Eaton Mountain to its full potential in a solid and realistic manner,” he said.
Students will research and visit local ski mountains and other recreational facilities throughout the year in order to build background knowledge and a deeper understanding of a working ski mountain. They will also assist and participate in developing an advisory council made up of like-minded community members interested in transforming Eaton Mountain.
Small ski areas are the best resources the industry has to introduce the sport to new people. These tiny operations, however, have a hard time thriving in the Northeast’s current snowmaking-is-required, cheap-megapass landscape. This model, if successful, could help build a template for transforming these community assets into something sustainable, an economic development initiative driven by the youth who will create the future economy.
In other lost-ish ski areas news, I came upon this update on Cockaigne’s website while putting together my latest season pass post. To the best of my knowledge, the ski area failed to reopen last season after new owners committed to doing so, but I’ll take this as a positive sign that we could at long last see the re-emergence of this Western New York bump.
After receiving “a handful” of nonbinding purchase offers that topped out at $70 million, Jay Peak is attempting to lower the $121 million assessment to $58.5 million, which would considerably reduce the resort’s property tax bill. Burke, meanwhile, is apparently worth no more than an extra-fancy three-bedroom Manhattan apartment.
NSAA releases operating guidance. Amazon’s ski-tow drone idea sounds very Jetsons but I’ll just wait for the personalized flying pods. Powder on the freedom of skiing phone-less. Also Powder on the race to open. Killington’s World Cup Races are cancelled.
This week in not skiing:
Since Covid wakizashi-ed my ski season in March I’ve had to find other ways to recreate the sensation of carefree flying and zipping about that is skiing’s most essential byproduct. I found it, as I’ve documented here before, by dusting off the neglected bike in my basement storage room and embarking on an exploratory quest of the city that I have remained mostly confined to. I’ve tracked all this like I track my skiing and I’ve ridden 51 days since May, hundreds of miles over the city’s ever-growing expanse of bike lanes, digging into those corners of the city that I have so long neglected, Roosevelt Island and Red Hook and Brooklyn’s sprawling Hasidic communities and unknown parks and oddly abandoned structures and hulking buildings of unknown purpose and origin. I have purposely for utilitarian reasons declined to invest in any sort of gear or specialized clothing and simply ride about in shorts and a T-shirt and huaraches and a baseball cap and some day I hope I can ski like this, whenever I want and with little fuss or preparation, something I can tack onto any day as an injection of joy and freewheeling exploration and adventure. There is something skiing-like about it especially when I am with friends and we are winding through some city park or something else obstacle-laden and interesting and we are weaving apart and coming together and just gliding through the world like a thing separated from it, that sense of freedom palpable and essential.